Since the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there has been much greater concern about the possibility of terrorist attacks employing chemical, biological, and radiological weapons. A major component in the federal government’s efforts at preventing another major terrorist attack on American soil was the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security, which brought together disparate agencies from multiple departments and placed them under one roof. The newly established federal department, DHS, was tasked with the enormous responsibility of preventing another attack and of mitigating the effects of failures to prevent all potential attacks.
Chemicals present a particularly difficult problem for national security agencies and for law enforcement. They are ubiquitous, and most have more than one application or use. Individually, they may be toxic or benign; combined, they may become extremely toxic and even constitute what we call “weapons of mass destruction.” Because many chemicals of concern to DHS also constitute challenges to law enforcement, thefts and attempted thefts of chemicals need to include examination of both areas. The motives of the thieves, after all, might not be immediately discernable. This is mentioned because thefts of chemicals most often involved illicit narcotics. The manufacturing processes for cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines, and many others all involve what are called “precursor chemicals,” often acids and drying agents essential for producing the fine powders that eventually find themselves in syringes, in capsules, and in neat lines on a table.
Because of the dual nature of many chemicals, DHS is only one of a number of departments and agencies across the United States involved in preventing and investigating thefts. And, because the chemicals and associated equipment used in the manufacture of weapons and drugs overlap, the responsibilities are spread among many agencies, including local law enforcement as well as DHS, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Departments of State, Defense, and Commerce. The latter three are involved in negotiating agreements with foreign governments, licensing imports and exports of dual-use items like chemicals, and defending against the theft and use of chemicals. Within DHS, most enforcement actions involve the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, which investigates and monitors the movement of illicit substances across international borders. Prevention of theft and sabotage is attempted through enforcement of the department’s Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program, which dictates measures chemical companies must use to minimize the prospects of theft or, just as bad, sabotage of sensitive facilities. DHS’s Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction program also plays a major role detecting the presence of illicit chemicals entering the United States through ports of entry, an especially difficult task given the volume of shipping traffic entering and exiting major ports every year.
Most of the successes in preventing the theft of chemicals have resulted from the activities of customs enforcement agencies of the United States and its international partners and from the investigation of attempted thefts of chemicals by illicit drug manufacturers, mainly those involved in the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamines. One documented case of an attempted theft of precursor chemicals occurred in April 2004 when a thief attempting to steal quantities of anhydrous ammonia, used in the manufacture of meth, accidentally caused a leak in storage containers at the facility he was attempting to burglarize. The thief’s carelessness lead to his arrest (and treatment for burns caused by his carelessness), so DHS was not involved, but the incident was logged into a federal database of such cases. In October 2008, a similar attempted theft from a secured chemical manufacturing and storage site in West Virginia occurred, also involving anhydrous ammonia, again with the intended purpose being the manufacture of methamphetamine. While the attempted thefts of anhydrous ammonia in these cases were linked to drugs, the same chemicals could easily be used in a terrorist weapon.
The Department of Homeland Security’s record at executing its core missions has probably been better than the public appreciates, but the department has had its critics. A 2015 report by the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs included the following statement in its assessment of the department’s efforts:
The Department has also struggled to execute its responsibilities to provide or improve the nation’s physical security, including its work with the private sector to support critical infrastructure security. 15 For example, DHS has spent more than a half a billion dollars over the past seven years on its program to create standards for and regulate the security of chemical facilities at risk of potential terrorist attacks. But the program has experienced significant problems, and 99 percent of all the chemical facilities that were supposed to be overseen by the program had not been inspected as of June 2014. (Emphasis added.)
One can possibly gauge the department’s success as evident in the dearth of publicized cases—and government agencies and departments rarely fail to publicize their successes, a notable exception involving intelligence activities—involving thefts or attempted thefts of chemicals. Once again, this can be attributed as much to counterdrug efforts as counterterrorist activities, given the far longer history of the former and the tens of billions of dollars spent over decades detecting and intercepting drug shipments, including shipments of precursor chemicals leaving the United States destined for illicit drug manufacturing sites south of the US border.